Stephen Gregg Guannu

Stephen Kolison, left, Gregg Mitman, center, and Liberian historian Joseph Saye Guannu view footage of a 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia. The footage will be part of a new documentary.

GREGG MITMAN

Gregg Mitman is in Liberia this week, introducing the present to the past.

A brutal 14-year civil war begun in 1990 cost the West African country much of its history. Many written and photographic records were destroyed.

It might seem a footnote in a country devastated by war. Under its current leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa's first woman president — Liberia is still working on restoring things like electricity, water and roads. But the country's past — its psychic infrastructure — also needs restoring.

Sometimes it can seem like all roads pass through Madison. Maybe that's true of any city, if you look deep enough for the connections.

The Madison-to-Liberia thread begins with Sirleaf, who came here in 1962 with her then-husband, who was studying agriculture at UW-Madison. They stayed two years. Ellen enrolled at Madison Business College and worked as a waitress at Rennebohm's. She was elected president of Liberia in 2005.

As Sirleaf began the arduous task of trying to rebuild her country, Gregg Mitman, in Madison, was thinking of Liberia of the 1920s.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Mitman, 52, first came to Madison in the 1980s to pursue a doctorate in the history of science. He currently holds a distinguished research chair at UW-Madison and curates the Nelson Institute's environmental film festival, "Tales from Planet Earth."

A decade or so ago, Mitman was approached about participating in a proposed documentary that would include filmed footage from a Harvard University scientific expedition to Liberia in 1926.

In the end that project never came together, but Mitman remained intrigued by the Liberian footage.

It came out of the Harvard expedition, which in turn had been encouraged by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. At the time, 1926, the United States had a large appetite for rubber products but little rubber growing under the American flag.

Firestone purchased an abandoned British plantation in Liberia and was soon growing 180,000 acres of rubber trees. The Harvard team arrived to assist Firestone by performing a medical and biological survey of Liberia.

Included in the Harvard group was Loring Whitman, a medical student and president of the photography club at the university. Using an early 35 mm camera, Whitman shot some six hours of film. He captured daily life in the country, traditional Liberian dances, wildlife, cotton trees, men at physical labor, historic leaders.

When the group returned and years passed, then decades, the film "kind of disappeared," Mitman said last week. Having learned of its existence, Mitman got in touch with Whitman's son, who owned the footage. He agreed with Mitman on its historical importance to the Liberian people and signed off on its use in a documentary.

Mitman made plans for a trip to Liberia, with the 1926 footage, last spring. Prior to his departure, he made an extraordinary discovery. Another instance of Madison providing connections. Mitman was introduced to a student at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies — Gregg was then interim director — named Emmanuel Urey, who was born into the civil war in Liberia, and fled at age 13 with his family. At the same time, Mitman met Stephen Kolison, a UW System vice president in Madison, who grew up on the (still active) Firestone plantation in Liberia.

Urey and Kolison signed onto the film project and traveled with Mitman to Liberia for two weeks in June. Urey stayed the summer. They took a laptop and showed the footage wherever they went. The reaction at times produced goose bumps. "That's my dad," a man said, eyes widening. President Sirleaf was moved by footage of a celebrated early female leader.

This week, the filmmakers are back in Liberia. They will retrace the Harvard expedition's path, shooting new interviews. Sirleaf has tentatively agreed to participate. Urey's discovery of his country's history will be central to the film, which Mitman will produce and direct, with Sarita Siegel. Kolison is associate producer.

There will be much more to do back in Madison — producing a trailer, finding funding, and, ultimately, distribution for the film — but helping the Liberians secure a tangible piece of their history has everyone excited. Mitman summed it up. "A remarkable experience."


Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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